The UCLA Sex Squad is Here to Help

A group of young performers is changing the way teenagers think about sex, self-esteem, and HIV.

BY Neal Broverman

May 03 2012 7:32 PM ET

UCLA SEX SQUAD AT THE AIDS WALK X400 | ADVOCATE.COM“I’ve seen the impact of the lack of sex education among our young people,” says Sonya Rahders, a UCLA sociology major and Sex Squad performer. Rahders attended a continuation high school, where many students were already parents. “So, it’s important to me to engage students in a dialogue and give them the tools to make their own choices. After almost every show, we have students come up and say, ‘What you said is how I feel’ and ‘I didn’t know anyone else felt that way.’”

As inventive as the shows are, “I know one performance is not enough to have any long term impact on someone,” Gere says. That’s why the Sex Squad is only one aspect of the Art and Global Health Center’s AMP It Up! project (AMP stands for Arts-based, Multiple-intervention, Peer education), which offers several programs to make the lessons of the Sex Squad stick. The Squad performers visit high schools to discuss safe sex and conduct art-making projects, including poems, skits, and visual artwork. AMP It Up! also hosts “Positively Speaking” events, where HIV-positive people share their stories with 14- and 15-year-olds.

All this work leads to tangible results, says Gere. A study found more than a three-fold increase, 14% to 59%, in sexually active students who’d taken an HIV test during the AMP It Up! programs.

“That’s what we want to see,” Gere says. “It indicates a belief that it’s important to know your status.”

Gordon and Gere just traveled to Georgia and North Carolina to work on bringing the Sex Squad model to Southern high school students. The process started after Gordon attended a health educator conference, where a woman from Arkansas told Gordon that HIV numbers were skyrocketing there.

“She said, ‘You need to be in the South,’” Gordon recalls. “I immediately said, ‘You’re right.’”

Gere and Gordon collaborated with Atlanta’s Emory University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to develop Sex Squad-like troupes that will be adapted to the different environments. For example, the Emory performers may call themselves the Emory Sex Ed Squad, Gere says, which sounds a bit less racy than UCLA’s troupe name.

Regardless of the name, Gere and Gordon are confident of the program’s success in other parts of the country. People are people, after all.

“Big political institutions want to control the way the way we think and talk about sex,” Gere says. “So to be lighthearted and humorous and open in our discussion about sex is counter to what we’re used to and, for most of us, it comes as a huge relief.”

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